Remember those “choose your own adventure” books that were popular when you were a kid? The ones that allowed you to determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome? Every few pages you would be given two or three choices, each leading to more choices and ultimately to one of many different endings.
Life is kind of like those books, when you think about it. Every day we are faced with choices. What to have for breakfast, which route to take to work, to strap on those running shoes and pound out that run or sit on the couch and drink wine, what to make for dinner, whether or not to smile at a stranger (which is almost always a good idea, in my opinion).
And all of these choices, no matter how small they might seem at the time, affect the larger twists and turns that our lives take. The moral of the story? Choose wisely friends. But at the same time, don’t take life too seriously. Having fun is important too.
Did you know that you can have fun with mac ‘n cheese? Did you have any idea how many choices you are presented with when it comes to making this delicious and comforting dish?
Let’s talk about these choices, shall we?
First, let’s talk about cheese. You can go the traditional route with a sharp Cheddar, or you can change it up with Gruyère, Fontina, Havarti, Gouda, you name it! Don’t forget an accent cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Feta, or Goat cheese.
How about pasta? Macaroni, shells, penne, rotini, any small pasta will do!
And not that cheese and pasta require any help in the deliciousness department, but there are some flavorful and fun things that you can add to the mix! Herbs and spices like fresh thyme, rosemary, sage, parsely, dry mustard, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg add some extra flavor, while add-ins like peas, carrots, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, spinach, bacon, and artichokes give a little more beef to the final product.
Finally, don’t forget the irresistible crispy topping, created with breadcrumbs, butter and garlic!
The possibilities are truly endless! Choose your own adventure friends. Have fun with life, and with your food!
Choose Your Own Adventure Mac ‘N Cheese (adapted from Fine Cooking magazine, Feb./Mar. 2012)
Now, this recipe takes some time to prepare, but I promise you, it is so worth it. Especially if you’re single like me – the leftovers fed me for lunch all week!
Step One: Mix the topping!
1 garlic clove, minced
3 TBSP. butter, melted
2 cups Panko bread crumbs, lightly toasted
Salt and pepper
2 TBSP. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
Stir the garlic into the melted butter. Put the breadcrumbs into a medium bowl and drizzle the butter over top. Add in the salt and pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (if using). Mix well and set aside.
Step Two: Make the cheese sauce!
4 TBSP. butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups milk (at least 1%)
Salt, to taste
4 cups cheese of your choice, plus up to one cup of an accent cheese
Herbs and spices (up to three, and up to 1 tsp. of each, depending on what you’re using)
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the flour and continue to whisk over low heat for about 3 minutes. The mixture will be bubbly and frothy. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly until the sauce is smooth and has the consistency of heavy cream, about 6 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a simmer, whisking constantly. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add the cheese, as well as the herbs and spices (if using). Season to taste with salt. Set aside, but keep warm.
Step Three: Cook the pasta!
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add 1 lb. of your choice of pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 1 minute less than indicated on the package. Drain well and return to the pot.
Step Four: Mix it all together!
Add the cheese sauce and your choice of add-ins (up to 3 cups total) to the pasta and gently stir to combine. If you’re using bacon, pancetta, or bacon, cook ’em up first. If you’re using any veggies, like brussels or asparagus, steam or sauté them before adding them in.
Step Five: Bake!
Transfer the pasta mixture to a 9×13 inch baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Evenly sprinkle the breadcrumbs over top. Bake at 350°F until the top is golden, about 15-20 minutes. Serve immediately.
For the batch of mac ‘n cheese pictured here, I used small shell pasta, Gruyère and Fontina cheese (accented with Parmigiana-Reggiano), fresh parsely and a pinch of cayenne, and brussel sprouts and pancetta. It was a true masterpiece! Next time, I’m going to try sharp Cheddar with peas and ham, and elbow macaroni for a more traditional mac ‘n cheese. See? Endless possibilities. Let your imagination run wild!